After seeing him continuously put his 6-foot-4 frame to good use by dominating in the air, Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth had some kind words for Aaron Wheeler following Philly’s 1-0 win over the Mexican club Pumas in Saturday’s international friendly.
“I think he’s probably a little bit of a cult hero already because he won so many balls in the air,” Hackworth said with a smile. “He probably won more balls in the air than we did all of last year.”
The Union manager was joking about that last part, of course. But Wheeler’s ability to stand above the opposition underscores an important need for the undersized Union. And, along with a strong performance from another player making his PPL Park debut – rookie Leo Fernandes – it was certainly one of the most important things to come out of Saturday’s friendly.
“They’ve been training so hard,” Hackworth said about Wheeler, Fernandes and some of the other young players who got on the field Saturday. “They deserve it. We talked about the opportunity and what it means. To play Pumas in front of a very big crowd is great and I’m just happy for those guys that they actually came on and performed. It’s tough to do but they handled it well.”
The goal, of course, for all of those players is to make a good enough impression to earn a spot in the rotation for league matches. But Wheeler – who also showed good footwork and assisted on the game’s only goal with a great pass to Michael Farfan – understands that he has to wait his turn.
“It’s difficult [not to play] but at the same time there are a lot of very, very talented forwards on this team,” said the 24-year-old Wheeler, who played a year in Finland last year before signing with the Union this past offseason. “I’m not one to come in and I think I deserve to play right away.”
For Fernandes, just making the team after being a fourth-round pick in the 2013 Supplemental Draft out of Stony Brook University, was a huge accomplishment and something that he said was a “dream come true.”
He called getting the chance to debut at PPL Park an “incredible feeling” and believes he fared well in the attack, playing a full 90 minutes while showing some of the creativity he learned as a youngster in Brazil.
“Overall, Brazil helped me become more technical but the United States helped me become a better player,” said Fernandes, who moved to the US when he was 6. “I’m just trying to prove that I belong on the Union.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at email@example.com.